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GE and others head to factory of the future vision with Oracle

Four manufacturing companies explain how Oracle IoT technology has helped them move forward with Industry 4.0 pursuits, including cloud ERP and industrial IoT.

Whether one refers to the next emerging era of manufacturing as the factory of the future, smart factories or Industry 4.0, there's little doubt that manufacturers are looking to do things very differently than they've been done traditionally.

Disruptive technologies -- ranging from cloud-based ERP and AI-powered analytics to IoT and 3D printing -- are forcing manufacturers to rethink their operations. They may simply want to incorporate these new tools. They might be focused on squeezing more value from their manufacturing data or modernizing antiquated, disconnected systems. Or they might feel the need to adjust to dramatic changes in market dynamics.

Whatever the reason, manufacturing is entering a period of unprecedented change that's expected to deliver benefits for product-makers and consumers alike. And, as attendees at the recent Oracle OpenWorld conference heard repeatedly, whatever path a manufacturer takes to its factory of the future vision, it will include many steps.

GE upends its supply chain approach

At General Electric in Boston, the desire to be more nimble and responsive is being embodied by the growing use of 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing. Since GE established itself as a pioneer in this area in 2012 -- when, with the help of a small company called Morris Technology, it figured out how to print a complex fuel nozzle for Boeing 737 engines that had been stumping its engineers -- GE has been making additive manufacturing a bigger part of its operation.

Doing so has accelerated innovation, increased product performance and reduced manufacturing costs. It has also enabled unprecedented integration and visibility across GE's supply chain. By adopting Oracle's cloud-based financial and supply chain applications, the company has become better equipped to support the supply chain transformation that additive manufacturing spurred.

Denis Pombriant, managing principal at Beagle Research Group, discusses the factory of the future.Denis Pombriant

And there's still much to do. Brad Stammen, GE's additive ERP and field service IT lead, told OpenWorld attendees that the company plans to build on its cloud-based platform by adding general ledgers and enhancing systems that manage everything from service contracts and revenue recognition to supplier collaboration and maintenance.

Ultimately, the goal is to crank out better performing products faster and more affordably.

"The cloud platform really gives us the agility we need to do that," Stammen said. "We're able to have visibility into partner and supplier information at the click of a button."

The way Denis Pombriant, managing principal at Beagle Research Group, sees it, this platform-centric approach to unlocking data and simplifying integration in ERP and the supply chain is key to enabling a factory of the future.

"An agile business can pivot on its platform," Pombriant said. "This agility need is what's driving everyone with common sense to adopt platform-based systems for fear of being left out."

Expertise needed to work with new cloud systems

Any time digital transformation takes place, there are new steps and, sometimes, unanticipated complexities.

Scott Rogers, technical director at Noble Plastics, a maker of custom injection moldings in Grand Coteau, La., discovered this issue after deploying a cloud-based IoT system for collecting and analyzing data from sensors mounted on factory robots.

The system relies on programs that run on robot controllers and feed the Oracle IoT cloud with operational data to be analyzed. Edge devices that enable the connection validate where the data is coming from, thus providing a critical layer of security, and appropriate personnel receive real-time alerts.

The result, Rogers said, frees Noble from having to engineer complex integrations and provides "some semblance of a remote control," but it's clear he'd like it all to work without needing so much expertise. He likened the situation to how much harder it was in the past to get a computer mouse to work than it is today.

"We're still kind of like the old mouse," he said. "You can get it done, but you have to find someone with a little bit of knowledge. It's going to move to the point where the mouse is today. I'm really looking forward to that time."

Digital robot twins compare performance

One strategy that has worked well for Noble has been building digital twins of robots, enabling staff members to more accurately monitor a robot's work by seeing its actual performance on a screen side by side with a digital twin showing how it should be performing. This is an approach that Oracle strongly recommends not just for robots, but for factory of the future environments in general.

The idea is to correlate the data and then use AI and machine learning embedded in the IoT cloud to identify problems sooner, said Jai Suri, senior director of product management for Oracle's IoT cloud. Doing so can help manufacturers with everything from enabling predictive maintenance to quickly identifying changes in cycle times that might increase costs.

"Most customers have a ton of data sitting on the factory floor today that's not being used," Suri said. "We want to tap that data to provide KPIs to systems that can optimize operations."

While Suri said the digital twin concept is gaining traction, most manufacturers haven't gone that far yet. But most, if not all organizations are doing what they can to extract value from their data however possible.

Manufacturer sheds its legacy system

In the case of Titan International, Inc., a $2 billion-a-year global maker of off-highway wheels, undercarriages and tires in Quincy, Ill., any data it could have gleaned from its manufacturing operations was trapped in a maze of antiquated systems running on AS/400 mainframes.

The company's nonstandard legacy systems prevented it from adopting any kind of cohesive master data structure, said Mark Pinnow, Titan's director of financial systems and analysis, during a presentation at OpenWorld. The system couldn't get at critical financial data, relied on manual collection of barcode and scanner data, and suffered from poor tracking of orders.

We're going to have better information. This is a big leap forward for us.
Mark Pinnowdirector of financial systems and analysis, Titan International

To combat this problem and put itself on a factory of the future path, Titan launched an ongoing effort dubbed Project Mosaic, turning to the cloud to retire and consolidate its AS/400-based systems and, in the process, creating a set of reusable business services. Pinnow estimated that the company is consolidating a dozen systems that collectively provide ERP functionality, as well as another dozen production and test systems.

Ultimately, Titan will end up standardized on an instance of the Oracle ERP Cloud integrated with Kronos workforce management software and RF-Smart's inventory management products. Pinnow told OpenWorld attendees that the company expects Project Mosaic to deliver improved automation, ramped-up productivity and better security, all by unleashing operational data.

"We're going to have better information," Pinnow said. "This is a big leap forward for us."

Alternative fuel prompts new data needs

Cummins, Inc., a 100-year-old maker of industrial engines and power generators in Columbus, Ind., also wants to unlock operational data by moving to the cloud, but for different reasons. Yes, the company needed modernization considering it relied on a traditional data center, but the real catalyst was the industry's shift toward alternative fuels and power sources.

By having to adjust to a more sustainable approach to engine and generator production -- not just to remain competitive, but also to comply with evolving regulations -- the company's leaders knew that data would be more important than ever, which translated to a need for more reliable and flexible ERP systems.

"If I can't rely on the core systems we use on a day-in, day-out basis, I can't invest in innovation and change," said Cummins CIO Sherry Aaholm during an OpenWorld keynote.

With more than 80 manufacturing plants around the world, the effort has been mammoth. The company is shutting down its large data center and moving many of its systems to the Oracle ERP Cloud. Aaholm said she's convinced that the combination of cloud-based ERP and, eventually, AI will enable the company to transform its manufacturing operations, make better use of operations staff and become more responsive to changing market dynamics.

"We see the value out of data and we see the value out of cloud," Aaholm said. "We can begin to get products to market much quicker than a traditional manufacturer."

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